29 July 2023

My dear Cole

In the summer of 1948, George Cukor was in England directing Edward, My Son (1949), which was being filmed at the MGM British Studios in Borehamwood near London. Cukor was a happy man, seeing that Spencer Tracy (his male lead) was in a rare good mood, needing fewer takes than usual and being helpful to other actors. Production of the film went smoothly and was ahead of schedule by several days. Besides being happy with the film's progress, Cukor was also glad to be away from Hollywood, feeling at home in London while comfortably staying at the Savoy. 

On 14 July 1948 —a month after production of Edward, My Son had started— Cukor wrote a letter to composer Cole Porter, thanking Porter for his birthday greetings and telling him how things were going in England. Cukor was pleased with the quality of the material they had been shooting, but despite his hopes for the film it ultimately became both a critical and commercial disappointment. (Leading lady Deborah Kerr did receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, but lost to Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress.)

George Cukor flanked by his leading actors Spencer Tracy and Deborah Kerr on the set of Edward, My Son
George Cukor and Cole Porter

Incidentally, Cukor and Porter were friends and would work together twice, i.e. on Adam's Rib (1949) and Les Girls (1957). An interesting titbit about the two is that there was an unspoken rivalry between them that started in the years after World War II. Both men were homosexual and Cukor was known for his extravagant Sunday pool parties, which attracted Hollywood's gay crowd. Porter, after moving to Hollywood, was a regular guest there. At some point, however, Porter started to hold his own Sunday pool parties, an invitation to hís parties eventually becoming more coveted than an invitation to Cukor's. There were people who attended both parties, but they were always careful not to tell one host about the other.


14th July, 1948.

My dear Cole,

It was mighty sweet of you to remember little me..... far, far away on alien shores. Your kind birthday greetings cheered me up to no end. Not that I am depressed at all, but I do have occasional twinges of home sickness for my dogs and for my house.... and oh yes! for my friends too of course.

I am comfortably settled in a very nice apartment facing the river at the Savoy, directly over Sophie Tucker, but so far no "Some of these Days". I am far too well fed and treated with great courtesy and consideration - more than I usually get at what you once so aptly called "the Elephants Grave Yard".

We are half-way through the picture and so far so good. If I were pressed, I would say 'So far...... better than good'. In fact there is real danger of us becoming smug! We are ahead of schedule by about four days. That is no mean accomplishment because the English take their picture-making at a much more leisurely clip than you Hollywoodians do - and it has been said by my enemies that I am a very slow director. But no longer!

However, I mustn't take all the bows. Spencer Tracy, who carries the picture - he appears in every scene, is so wonderfully accomplished and such a sure actor that we are able to do long, long scenes, five pages in fact, in one take. That is how we manage to get on with it so well.....

I think we are talking an awful lot about me and my picture.... so I will say one thing more. We are rather pleased with the quality of the stuff we are getting, but you will be the judge of that when we have a great big Premeerr at the Iris on Hollywood Boulevard.

People have been very kind and hospitable, but I very prudently spend the weekends "layin' on de bed" at the Savoy, instead of being brilliant and scintillating at some great house and telling them all my comical stories. 

After I finish, which according to present computations will be in the early part of August, I hope to take a little trip to Paris, France, and maybe as far as Rome, Italy, and then home sometime in September. I feel sure that I am missing all kinds of delightful lunches and dinners and galas with you. I am even longing to hear Kay Francis tell of her feud with Miriam Hopkins again - or am I going too far?

I hope, dear Cole, that you are well and happy, that your work is going on as you wish it to, and that your life - and your pool are full. I have a pretty good idea that they are.

Again my thanks to you, and affectionate regards,

(signed) George


I am intrigued by Cukor's comment about Kay Francis and Miriam Hopkins: "I am even longing to hear Kay Francis tell of her feud with Miriam Hopkins again ...". I didn't know about a feud between them and browsing the web I found nothing regarding a feud. In fact, several sources (including IMDB) claim the opposite. Francis and Hopkins reportedly became good friends ever since they had starred together in Ernst Lubitsch's Trouble in Paradise (1932). So perhaps Cukor didn't mean a "feud" literally and Francis was just telling him about a fight she'd been having with Hopkins?? (The only actress Hopkins seemed to have had a feud with was Bette Davis; read more here.)

Francis (l) and Hopkins

16 July 2023

There is no one even second to her ...

From the mid-1940s until the early 1950s, Jeanne Crain was one of the biggest stars at 20th Century-Fox. After signing a long-term contract with Fox in 1943, Crain made her (uncredited) debut in the musical The Gang's All Here (1943). Her first substantial role was in the horse racing drama Home in Indiana (1944), followed by roles in Winged Victory (1944) and in such box-office hits as the musical State Fair (1945) —opposite Dana Andrews, with her singing voice dubbed— and the film noir Leave Her to Heaven (1945) playing the good sister to Gene Tierney's bad one. By 1946, Crain had become one of the studio's main box-office draws. The actress received more fanmail than anyone on the Fox lot (except for Betty Grable) and was also a personal favourite of studio head Darryl F. Zanuck. 

Since Crain was a big Fox star, Zanuck wouldn't let her play the relatively small role of Clementine in John Ford's western My Darling Clementine (1946). In the memo below, Zanuck informs director Ford of his decision not to cast Crain in the part, which eventually went to newcomer Cathy Downs. According to John Ford biographer Ronald L. Davis, the director later responded to Zanuck's memo, saying he didn't care much who played Clementine, "providing she doesn't look like an actress".

DATE: February 26, 1946

TO: Mr. John Ford

CC: Sam Engel [producer]


Dear Jack:

There will be no chance for us to get Jeanne Crain to play in My Darling Clementine. I know she would be delighted to be directed by you but the part is comparatively so small that we would be simply crucified by both the public and critics for putting her in it. She is the biggest box-office attraction on the lot today. There is no one even second to her ...


Source: Memo from Darryl F. Zanuck: The Golden Years At Twentieth Century-Fox (1993); selected and edited by Rudy Behlmer.

Crain with Zanuck and his children
Jeanne Crain went on to make successful films for Fox like Margie (1946) and Apartment for Peggy (1948), in the latter picture playing William Holden's young, chattering bride. Her most acclaimed films were still to come, however. Being top-billed, Crain starred alongside Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern and Kirk Douglas in A Letter to Three Wives (1949); and she played the titular role in Pinky (1949) as a light-skinned black girl passing for white. The latter performance earned Crain an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, the only nomination of her career (losing to Olivia de Havilland in The Heiress).

It's interesting to note that the directors of A Letter to Three Wives and Pinky, respectively Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Elia Kazan, were both unimpressed with Crain's acting skills. Mankiewicz was unhappy with her performance in his film —against his will he would direct her again in People Will Talk (1951)— and once said about Crain: "I could only rarely escape the feeling that Jeanne was, somehow, a visitor to the set. She worked hard. Too hard at times, I think, in response to my demands, as if trying to compensate by sheer exertion for what I believe must have been an absence of emotional involvement with acting... She was one of the few whose presence among the theatre-folk I have never fully understood." And Kazan said about her: "Jeanne Crain was a sweet girl, but she was like a Sunday school teacher. I did my best with her, but she didn't have any fire. The only good thing about her was that it went so far in the direction of no temperament that you felt Pinky was floating through all of her experiences without reacting to them, which is what 'passing' is." While I agree that Crain was an actress of limited range, I have always liked her and I think she did a fine job in both A Letter to Three Wives and Pinky. (And I've just rewatched the delightful Apartment for Peggy and Crain is great in that.)

After appearing in several other films including Cheaper by the Dozen (1950), The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951), Dangerous Crossing (1953) and Vicki (1953), Jeanne Crain eventually left 20th Century-Fox in 1953. A few years earlier, Marilyn Monroe had (re) joined the studio and would soon become Fox's biggest star.

Clockwise: Jeanne Crain with Gene Tierney in Leave Her To Heaven (1945); Crain in Margie (1946); with William Holden in Apartment For Peggy (1948); with Linda Darnell and Ann Sothern in A Letter To Three Wives (1949), and with Ethel Waters in Pinky (1949). 

2 July 2023

Working with you and knowing you has been a gentle and rare experience

Following her role in Green Mansions (1959), Audrey Hepburn was cast as a Native American girl in John Huston's The Unforgiven (1960), the only western of her career. The film, in which Audrey co-stars with Burt Lancaster, Lillian Gish and Audie Murphy, was plagued with problems. While shooting a scene Audrey was thrown from her horse, breaking several vertebrae in her back and causing production to be suspended for a number of weeks. Audrey recovered —nursed back to health by Marie Louise Habets, the Belgian nun Audrey had portrayed in The Nun's Story (1959)— and eventually completed the film. (Audrey later suffered a miscarriage, due to her fall.) Besides Hepburn, co-star Audie Murphy was also in an accident, which occurred during a break in filming. On a duck-hunting trip Murphy's boat capsized and, unable to swim due to a war injury, the actor nearly drowned and had to be rescued. 

There were also problems on the artistic front. Director John Huston was in constant disagreement with Burt Lancaster, whose production company Hill-Hecht-Lancaster Productions financed the film. Huston wanted the picture to be a bold commentary on racism in America, while Lancaster wanted it to be less controversial and more commercial. In the end, The Unforgiven failed both commercially and critically. Unhappy with his film, Huston later said, "Some pictures I don't care for, but The Unforgiven is the only one I actually dislike...". (For the plot of the film, go here.)

Above (left to right): Burt Lancaster, Lillian Gish, Audrey Hepburn, Doug McClure and Audie Murphy as the Zachary family in John Huston's The Unforgiven. Below: The cast is getting directions from Huston whose back is turned to the camera.
The Unforgiven was shot on location in Durango, Mexico. Audrey Hepburn had her horse riding accident in late January 1959 and, as said, it took several weeks before she recovered and started filming again (wearing an orthopaedic brace). Probably in March, after she had returned to the set, Audrey wrote the following two letters to Lillian Gish (on The Unforgiven horse-themed stationery). The women got along quite well, The Unforgiven being the only film they made together. In the first letter Audrey tells the veteran actress how "working with [her] and knowing [her] has been a gentle and rare experience" and also talks about the gift she made for Gish. In the next letter Audrey thanks Gish for always being there for her. The film Audrey refers to here is Green Mansions, which premiered in March 1959 and was directed by Audrey's then-husband Mel Ferrer. Despite Audrey's hopes for Green Mansions, it was a disaster at the box-office.

Source: Bonhams



Dearest Lillian

I made this for you for chilly rehearsal halls or stages, drafty sets etc. In each stitch all my love — the wool comes from Finland and is soft but warm. Working with you and knowing you has been a gentle and rare experience — you are even more than what Herbie said you were. My gratitude and hugs

P.S. It was hard to buy something for you in Durango — hence the home-made
You wear it this way

See you tomorrow— or else shall find out when you leave.

About the tips— 50 pesos maximum should cover any one person— or a handbag for instance for Georgina— 25 pesos is fine for those you have been tipping as you went along.

Lillian Gish and Audrey Hepburn as resp. Ma Zachary and her adopted daughter Rachel in The Unforgiven. I think that Audrey was miscast as the Kiowa Indian girl and agree with Bosley Crowther when he wrote for the NY Times in April 1960: "As the girl, Audrey Hepburn is a bit too polished, too fragile and civilized among such tough and stubborn types as Burt Lancaster as the man of the family, Lillian Gish as the thin-lipped frontier mother and Audie Murphy as a redskin-hating son."
Audrey Hepburn knitting on the set of The Unforgiven
Source: Bonhams



Darling Mother Lillian

How good, how very good you always are to me — how like you to know just how I felt yesterday and bring me yourself a bouquet of love and warmth and understanding — all my hearts thanks and love.

Mel is HAPPY, terribly so, over the results— notices were mixed so far— most argue with the advisability of telling the story— Bosley Crowther said very nice things— N.Y. Daily News gave it 3½ stars!!! Motion Picture Daily excellent— O Lillian! and lovely ones for me— how deeply happy I am for Mel's sake— and how proud I am of him. [hearts drawing] Your completely devoted Audrey

Audrey Hepburn recovering in the hospital following her horse riding accident, with husband Mel Ferrer by her side.
Director John Huston with Lillian Gish behind the scenes of The Unforgiven

Lillian Gish on the set of The Unforgiven. Gish was an expert shot. For the film John Huston and leading man Burt Lancaster wanted to teach her how to shoot, but Gish turned out to be a better marksman than either Huston or Lancaster. Early in her career she had been taught how to shoot by ex-bank robber Al J. Jennings, who had become an actor and had played in one of her films.